• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Wednesday 06th March, 2013

Are youth courts cutting crime – or increasing it?

strong>Juvenile courts lead to more adult crime, not less, a recent study argues. Canadian teens who went through the youth courts were twice as likely to become convicted adult criminals as similar adolescents who were arrested but not sent to court.It may seem logical that making an appearance in court should be a shocking experience that deters teenagers from continuing on a path toward offending. But for many youth, getting involved in the court system seems to have the opposite effect.Given the current debates about being “tough on crime,” it’s a crucial question: are youth courts cutting crime, or inadvertently increasing it?Youth courts as an interventionThe idea that court can be used as an intervention in itself is not a new one. Appearance in court, and sanctions ranging from a relatively minor fine to a serious custodial sentence, are supposed to convince offenders that they don’t want to risk a repeat. This is what an international team of researchers has put to the test.The researchers examined the adult criminal records of around 400 boys from poor households in Montreal, Canada, who had participated in the Montreal Longitudinal Experimental Study (MLES) from age 6 to 25. The analysis compared two groups: a “court exposed” group of 176 boys who were arrested and brought to juvenile court between ages 12 and 17; and a comparison group of 225 who were arrested and taken to a police station but were never processed by a court. The “court exposed” teens were much more likely than the comparison group to offend as adults.But the researchers couldn’t tell from these raw data whether the youth who landed in court also had other characteristics that would set them on the road to adult crime. Maybe these boys would have offended as adults, regardless of their involvement in court as teens.So, to disentangle causes and effects, the two groups were “matched” across a wide range of earlier characteristics, including self-reported and parent-reported criminal or problem behavior. Then boys who were as similar as possible before their encounter with the authorities were compared to each other.The process of propensity score matching aims to ensure the researchers are comparing like with like, in terms of the youths’ background, parental behavior, drug use, educational status and anti-social and criminal behavior levels. As a result, they can argue that the remaining difference between the groups is due to the “intervention” – in this case, whether a youth caught offending was processed through court or not.What difference does a day at court make?Even after the matching process, being processed through a youth court greatly increases the likelihood of having a criminal record in adulthood. Youths processed by the courts were twice as likely to be convicted of any offence between the ages of 18 and 25, when compared to similar youths who were dealt with by the police only: the risk of conviction was 50% for the “court exposed” teens, compared to 24% for their matched counterparts. Furthermore, court exposed youths were 2.6 times more likely to commit a violent offence and 1.8 times more likely to commit a non-violent offence.It is also possible that some of the apparent bad effect of youth courts would disappear if more data were available. It is possible that there is an unknown factor, common to court appearances and later offending, that partially explains the increased likelihood of both. For instance, this study lacked information on why a case was pursued all the way to court. But additional information is unlikely to fully explain away such a large, negative effect.The results don’t come as a complete surprise. Previous research that followed participants for a shorter time has also pointed in this direction. This new evidence that the negative effects of the youth justice system hold true over time is important. Court increases re-offending, really?There are several possible reasons why court exposure could lead to higher re-conviction rates. One of the most commonly held ideas is that when a youth is known to be an offender, their chances of being accepted in a pro-social environment are significantly reduced. For example, teenagers labeled as offenders will be treated differently by those around them and might not get invited to mingle with their non-deviant peers, as they would be seen as being a bad influence. If the only people not rejecting them are their fellow offenders, the whole group is exposed to a normality centered on offending. Another important reason is that court processing and punishment – especially custodial sentences – may disrupt an individual’s path through school and into work, making it harder to make the transition from adolescence into legitimate adult activities.Overall, it is clear that the results have an important message: when it comes to crime, the criminal justice system may be part of the problem. **********References:Petitclerc, A., Gatti, U., Vitaro, F., & Tremblay, R. E. (2012). Effects of juvenile court exposure on crime in young adulthood. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2012.02616.xLinks:Juvenile Justice: What works and what doesn't

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